A few years ago the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki turned American moviegoers into admiring fans with his gorgeous epic "Princess Mononoke." Then he retired, only to come back now with his amazing new film "Spirited Away." To say this is the most beautifully rendered animation film ever made is to demean it by praising only its visual genius. We must add that the quality of its invention ranks with - maybe above - that of "Alice in Wonderland." The breath of genius infuses every frame of this film.
The story begins as 10-year-old Chihiro (voiced in English by Daveigh Chase, who was Lilo in "Lilo and Stitch") is whining in the back seat of her parents' car as they drive to their new home. No old friends, a new school, new town - it's understandable. But then her father tries to take a shortcut down an overgrown road, and ends up at what appears to be an abandoned amusement park. They walk the midway, past many food booths, and come upon one that has lots and lots of delicious dishes, all there for the taking. As her parents gobble everything up, Chihiro wanders away, only to find on returning that they have been turned into fat pigs. This begins her own strange odyssey.
This is not an amusement park but a kind of island dominated by a huge structure that is a bathhouse of the spirits, run by a woman with a huge, Maurice Sendak-like hooknose face, named Yubaba. Chihiro is told by a strangely helpful boy, Haku, that she must apply to Yubaba (the voice of Suzanne Pleshette) for a job at the bathhouse, but to be aware that Yubaba will give her a new name; if she forgets her real one she will never return to her parents. And so she becomes Sen, and is now a helper at the bathhouse.
I'm skipping over the myriad events and creatures of Chihiro/Sen's new life at the bathhouse; the boiler-room operator with his eight limbs, the dust balls who deliver coal to the furnace, the enormous radish-spirit who fills an elevator; and there is Yubaba's own, huge baby; and the Spirit of the River, who comes to the bathhouse to be cleansed of the sludge and junk that humans throw at him. The visual details, and the creatures around Sen, are so beautifully made you want to stop the film at every frame. "Spirited Away" has the delicious scariness of a child's adventure in a world of adults, but the beauty of a glorious dream - Miyazaki's dream.
From the high windows of the bathhouse Sen can see a two-car train that passes by regularly, on its way to - well, where? She will come to take that train, along with the River Spirit, and come close to the end of her journey. And she will find, as well, that Haku is more than he appears; he is a dragon, but he too cannot be released until he rediscovers his true name.
At the screening I saw it was preceded by a trailer for a new Disney film based on "Treasure Island," a space version stupidly called "Treasure Planet." It was the standard Disney mix of drawn, colored, and computer-generated elements that in the Disney manner contained no visual or creative surprises. Did no one tell them that their work shrinks to nothing when compared with "Spirited Away?" The trailer became a reminder not to watch their film. (In fairness, I should add that "Spirited Away" is being released in this country by Disney.)
I was not as enchanted by "Princess Mononoke" as some other critics; it seemed disjointed, a mismatched pair of stories that didn't quite work together. But "Spirited Away" is a masterpiece. Miyazaki holds everything in his magical hands, building worlds out of color and line applied to celluloid, the working parts of animation. He has added some computer animation when required for appropriate depth of field, but neither you nor I need be concerned about, or even aware of, his techniques. We are so thrilled by the beauty of the film, and the power of his story, that we can respond like children - and demand to see it over and over again.